Bangladesh’s only female big-city mayor may also be its most effective

Salina Hayat Ivy is the first and only woman to lead one of Bangladesh's 11 "city corporations." (Narayanganj City Corporation)

NARAYANGANJ, Bangladesh — This Muslim-majority nation may have a female prime minister, but at the local level it remains difficult for women to gain and hold political power.

Salina Hayat Ivy knows this better than anybody. As the mayor of this fast-growing port city close to Dhaka, she is the first and only woman to lead a “city corporation” — that’s the local term for Bangladesh’s 11 biggest urban jurisdictions. It’s a role that makes her something of a spokesperson for women leaders and the barriers they face here — but also a symbol of the possibilities for change.

A good example of both of those things is her election four years ago. As the leader of a much smaller jurisdiction that predated the current city corporation, Ivy was popular and had turned a large budget deficit into a small surplus. She also was the vice president of the local unit of the governing Awami League. Still, the party passed over Ivy and picked a male nominee for mayor — as the political parties often do to women candidates here.

Ivy ran anyway, as an independent “candidate of the people.” She won in a landslide, collecting more than twice as many votes as her party-backed opponent. After the victory, she told reporters, “I want to work for the people of Narayanganj irrespective of their political identities and creeds.”

Tireless crusader

Ivy, 49, has held to that promise. Along the way, she’s emerged as one of south Asia’s mayors to watch. She’s established herself as an honest leader in a country with a big corruption problem. And she’s a tireless crusader for the urban poor, who in Narayanganj live on less than 42 cents a day.

Ivy is on a campaign to promote entrepreneurship among women. She has set up training centers for women and offered them loans of up to $64 to launch small businesses such as selling groceries or ferrying fabrics — Narayanganj is the capital of Bangladesh’s knitted clothing industry. Ivy estimates that as many as 70,000 have received either a grant or loan.

Another program has mobilized poor residents to save a total of $250,000, enabling them to build wealth and send their kids to school.  From the slum known as Rishipara to a colony of “untouchable” street sweepers, every rundown corner of the city is minting businesswomen whose children are growing up more literate and better prepared for work than they did.

Mayor Salina Hayat Ivy meets with Narayanganj residents in her office. The mayor has been a tireless advocate for the urban poor. (AZM Anas)

“Women are rapidly leaving poverty and becoming self-reliant,” Ivy told me in an interview this week. “Other cities can learn from us how we have made this happen.” Support for both programs comes from the government’s Local Government and Engineering Department, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Development Programme.

Health care is another key priority for Ivy, who is a doctor by training. With help from the Asian Development Bank, Narayanganj is building four hospitals. Ivy turned down a proposal to set up one of them, a maternity hospital, in her own constituency. Instead she singled out Kadam Rasul, an area nestled on the east side of the Shitalakkhya River, accessible mostly by boat. The hospital has enabled women to deliver birth at one-third the cost of private clinics and without having to make the dangerous river crossing while laboring. “This was life-saving, in an area where home delivery was the norm,” says Hasib Mahmud, a medical officer for the city.

In a country where cities need to go hat in hand to the central government to spend money on development, Ivy is preoccupied with finding ways to make the city financially self-reliant. With the help of private developers, she is building markets that accomplish the twin goals of removing hawkers from congested streets and raising revenue by charging them fees. One market cost $120,000 to build and brings in $500,000 in income, she says. Ivy is doing the same with building housing flats and leasing them out.

“The beauty of the program is we haven’t sold out land — ownership still lies with the city corporation,” the mayor says. “We got booking fees and are now getting rent.”

Clean government

Ivy comes from a political family, which helped her to overcome the barriers to women. Her father, Ali Ahmed Chunka, was a labor leader and mayor of Narayanganj in the 1970s and also was very popular with the poor.

Ivy went to medical school in Ukraine and spent seven years in Russia. She later moved to New Zealand to live with her husband, Kazi Ahsan Hayat, a software engineer. On a visit home in 2002, she ran for mayor in Narayanganj and won.

In 2011, the government merged Narayanganj with two other cities, setting up Ivy’s dramatic election win. The new Narayanganj City Corporation had vastly more land area and triple the population at 1.4 million. The greater responsibilities have come with greater public needs, but not always the money to pay for them. “People want development fast,” Ivy says, “but they’re slow in tax payment.”

Mayor Ivy uses a closed-circuit TV (left) to monitor officials who used to take long breaks for lunch or prayer. Her father Ali Ahmed Chunka (photo, right) was Narayanganj mayor in the 1970s. (AZM Anas)

Still, she has worked hard to make the city administration more responsive than commonly found in Bangladesh. In 2004, Ivy installed a closed-circuit TV system in her office to monitor officials who used to take long breaks for lunch or prayer. More recently, with some technical assistance from the German aid agency GIZ, she launched a one-stop service center. Initially focused on issuing birth and death certificates, the center also refers people to the right desks to obtain licenses they need.

On a recent morning at the corporation offices, I saw a businessman who runs a private courier service come to renew his trade license. He was greeted courteously by a customer service agent, who asked him whether he had faced any harassment or delays while getting the license or been forced to pay extra. He had not. The businessman walked out with his license in hand. “No city corporation has this kind of service,” says town planner Mohammad Moinul Islam, who was involved in setting up the system.

He’s not exaggerating. Usually it takes five to seven days for a local government to issue a trade license. For most city dwellers in Bangladesh, it was the kind of behavior in a government agency they can only imagine. As Ivy puts it: “Access to faster services is a civic right.”

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AZM Anas, known to his friends as Abu, is an economic editor with Dhaka-based business daily The Financial Express.  Full bio

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